It is amazing how “eat the rich” can feel so right.
Today’s game is the marginally forgotten Sega Genesis title, Haunting Starring Polterguy. This was an Electronic Arts jaunt from 1993, and won a bit of acclaim at its release for being a very different kind of game. At a time when the consoles were dominated by furry platformers with attitude, Haunting Starring Polterguy was a distinctly humorous game with peculiar gameplay. You are a ghost, and it is your job to scare four different people by possessing a variety of objects that have been conveniently preprogrammed for potential scares. HsP definitely contains some annoying, contemporary “action game” conventions (there is a “Hell” level that is all dodging and jumping, and a completely unsuitable final boss), but, by and large, it is a unique experience that is still rare to this very day. We had… What? Geist? And that was mostly about being a first-person shooter in different forms? Haunting Starring Polterguy is one of the only titles to utilize such a universal concept in decades of gaming history despite the fact that playing as a spooky ghost trying to scare hapless humans is instantly recognizable. We have an entire holiday based on it! Two, if you include the works of Dickens!
And you know what else is another universal concept? Eat the rich. (Also a popular topic for Dickens.)
You are not a generic ghost in Haunting Starring Polterguy. You are, of course, the titular Polterguy. And Polterguy was not some born-dead apparition (eat it, Slimer), he was once a normal, living punk teenager who died thanks to a defective skateboard. And, since he blames this most bogus of deaths on the manufacturers of the board, he is going to haunt CEO Vito Sardini and his family until they run screaming from their home. And in much the same way that Polterguy is a very defined character (for a 90’s 16-bit title) the Sardinis are not just generic people in a house waiting for a spook ‘em up. The Sardinis are… Well, let’s look at Flo’s in-game biography…
And if that was a little too subtle, how about we see what there is to say about her dear daughter…
The Sardinis are portrayed as three key things: vicious, selfish, and rich. And it is worth examining why those first two traits so quickly intersect with the third.
First of all, Haunting Starring Polterguy is a “children’s game” that does something far more brave than Grand Theft Auto: it involves children. Aside from fairly generic ghouls that seem to represent the basic concept of death, the four Sardinis are the only opponents Polterguy will ever face. And two of those Sardinis are kids! And, considering you are literally scaring them into homelessness, HsP does go out of its way to make prepubescent children creatures worthy of being tossed out on the street for their crimes. Tony and Mimi are presented as horrible little monsters in their own right, and, complete with unusual mentions of their love of various poisons, the basic concept here seems to be that the world would be better off without the Sardini family. Polterguy is a polter-guy while these rapscallions still live! That doesn’t seem right!
But why are Sardini children terrible? Well, obviously because they are rich. Papa Vito Sardini is just south of straight up being Mr. Monopoly as the very picture of capitalism with his suit and giant cigar, and Flo Sardini is the housewife that is assumed to be lambasting a cleaning staff just off screen. They are loaded, and their gigantic homes filled with wild excesses are monuments to their fortune. Hell, the warp from level 2 to level 3 is hidden in the “jacuzzi room”! There is no question that the Sardinis have grossly profited off suffering, and Polterguy is a not-living reminder that their money has been earned through causing literal death to others.
And it is amazing that I intrinsically understood this as a child.
I was roughly Tony Sardini’s age when Haunting Starring Polterguy was released. While I know I didn’t pick this one up on release day, I am estimating that my childhood memory of renting this game did occur when it was contemporary. And I will formally note that I do not consider myself to have been a smart child. Or teenager. Or young adult. Or… whatever I am right now. Adult? That doesn’t sound right… Regardless! I was not a gamer that ever picked up on subtext until roughly the release of Final Fantasy 13, so, back in the Final Fantasy 4 days, I was hopelessly drowning in a quagmire of the literal. But, luckily, there is nothing remotely subtle about the Sardinis. They are mean. They are rich. They are the enemy, and, should Polterguy fail in his mission to teach them a lesson, they will inevitably hurt more people. They are the bourgeois, and they must be stopped.
And I got that. I understood that the rich were the enemy of a young, hip, teenager (who may or may not be alive). I was never cool/coordinated enough to be a skateboard champ, but I wanted to be a radical shredder. These “rich kids”? They were just as selfish and mean as the bullies at my school. And were the real bullies wealthy and privileged? Of course they were! One of my greatest enemies in primary school was the grandson of a superintendent. Kid was untouchable! I would have haunted his house in a second. And even as a dumb ten-year-old, I knew the reason he could get away with damn near anything was that his parents/grandparents were high enough on the food chain that none of my beloved teachers would ever so much as shoot an ornery glance in his direction. He was untouchable! And it was because of unearned wealth and power!
And, end of the day, when this is something that could be understood by a foolish child, it really raises the question of why “being rich” is something that is supposed to be aspirational.
We see it over and over again, right? We are told that “rich guy” is the smartest guy around, he has been so successful in everything, and then he’s put in a position where we can actively see the decisions he is making and the thoughts he is having, and it is clear we’re dealing with a charlatan. But then how was he so successful? Well, it is pretty easy to identify when someone has inherited billions of dollars, and how that could maybe purchase a few accolades and an entire public relations firm. And whether these braindead billionaires are aspiring to politics or simply owning a social media company, we do not need a Citizen Kane to be reminded that they are little more than monsters themselves. A wise writer once said of being rich, “In terms of cognitive impairment it’s probably like being kicked in the head by a horse every day”. And this fact is proven to us over and over again, generation through generation! It’s in our literature and parables going back centuries! We know it in our genetic code at this point that the rich would eat us all if given the tiniest opportunity!
So bite back.
Haunt that couch, Polterguy. When the revolution comes, you will be on the right side.
FGC #650 Haunting Starring Polterguy
- System: Sega Genesis was technically the only place you could find Polterguy. However, there was an Electronic Arts collection released for the PSP. So EA Replay contains the most recent release of Polterguy… and that was 2006. Good luck finding this dead man now!
- Number of players: This is very much a single player game, but, inexplicably, there is a two-player mode. It is mostly an alternating adventure (player one haunts, dies, and then it is player two’s turn), but both players go head-to-head to race out of Hell and see who gets the next turn first. It is a shame that the simultaneous bits only occur in the dreary dungeon, as tandem haunting of the house might be fun. You could scare Sardinis into each other!
- Optimum Run: And speaking of going to Hell: I literally cannot figure out if this game is meant to be… what’s the word that fits here… played without failure? Like… are you supposed to die? Or re-die? What I mean to say is that your health bar drains very quickly, and, considering “death” just means playing a different kind of level, it is difficult to determine whether “dying” is something that is supposed to happen routinely, or if there is some optimum way to scare everyone and always keep your health topped off. It certainly seems like the scares do not drop enough ectoplasm to keep Polterguy healthy, but maybe if you run all over the house and scare everyone in succession…
- Cheat ‘em Up: Possibly as a concession to the above issue, there are level warps hidden in every stage. There is practically no way you would find these shortcuts on your own (less “run on top of some blocks to find the secret pipes” and more “haunt the garbage can in one specific room and press B C B B”), but they are quick and easy if you want to “continue” to a new stage. Or… just skip 75% of the game. That’s good, too.
- Favorite Haunt: One of the doorways is enchanted to summon a skeleton cowboy with pistol blazing. Why is this doorway undead Western themed? Who knows!
- An End: The finale reveals that the family dog was some kind of malevolent force all along. Whether this entity is the reason the starring family is also malevolent is never explored, but you do have to fight the dog monster in a boss fight for which this gameplay system is woefully underequipped. But if you win, Polterguy is restored to life! And then he immediately dies again! Because that is funny! I guess!
- Did you know? One of the most risqué haunts involves possessing a bath towel in the bathroom, and materializing a seemingly naked woman behind the towel. But when she removes the towel, it reveals she is a touch on the skinless side, and someone is going to be more than a little frightened by the Hellraiser lady walking around. Now that is something Nintendon’t do over on the Super Nintendo.
- Would I play again: Maybe? This one is a fun curiosity, and really does have unique gameplay for the era. That said, Polterguy is not great at haunting my memory, and I am unlikely to pick it back up if it does not ever appear on a compilation again. So…. Fingers crossed for a Sega Genesis Mini III.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Goat Simulator 3! Let’s watch a goat do all sorts of things. I guarantee it will be spicy! Please look forward to it!